Yoke, thingamajig, doodad, and oojamaflip: meet the placeholders

I have a guest post up at A Thing About Words, the blog of Merriam-Webster Unabridged, on the curious subject of placeholder words: What sort of yoke is that thingamajig?

Placeholder words, as you’ll probably know or will have guessed from the title, refer to things (or people, places, etc.) whose name is unknown, forgotten, or unnecessary in the context.

After briefly discussing everyday examples such as thing and stuff, I move on to the “elaborate and ever-growing set” whose members include whatchacallit and thingamabob:

Ever-growing in two senses: not only are there more of these words every time I look, but their syllables clump like crystals. Thing produced thingum and thingummy, which grew into thingamabob and thingamajig. And then there’s oojah and oojamaflip, whatsit, veeblefetzer, doodad and doohickey, whatchacallit and whatchamacallit, the infix “-ma” perhaps motivated by symmetry or prosody. Some placeholder words have been around for centuries and boast myriad variations to be reshuffled on a whim and sent tumbling into colloquial conversation.

One of my favourite placeholders is, I think, peculiar to Ireland or at any rate Hiberno-English: yoke. It’s in popular use around Ireland.

[Yoke] can refer to an unspecified object (Give us that yoke) or an indescribable person (You’re an awful yoke). Both are informal, and the latter is gently or affectionately pejorative. You can hear it in this video of Dublin phrases. Yoke can even serve as a root, like thing in the permutations above, yielding words such as yokeamabob, yokeamajig, and thingamayoke. Yokey and yokibus also have some currency. Fun words, for sure, but like attention-grabbing outfits they’re probably best not overused.

For more detail on Hiberno-English yoke (including colourful examples from literature), along with various other placeholder curios such as Philip K. Dick’s kipple, click here for the full yoke.

17 Responses to Yoke, thingamajig, doodad, and oojamaflip: meet the placeholders

  1. catteau says:

    Buddy!

    Here in Newfoundland, any person you want to refer to without being precise is called buddy. As is, when saying that there was a hit and run accident, “buddy hit my car and left.” Or “buddy’s put that house on the market.” Etc. You can always tell the newcomers, they are trying to figure out who Buddy is!

    I’ve never heard “oojamaflip” before – I love it, what a wonderful word! Way better than thingamajig, which was common in my youth.

    • Stan says:

      That’s really interesting, Joy. Buddy never quite caught on in Ireland even as a word for friend or mate; I know only a couple of people who use it, and didn’t even know about the usage you describe (a few more examples of which I found in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English). And from Wikipedia I learned of an entertainer called Kevin Blackmore who uses the stage name Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers.

      I still like thingamajig but I’m definitely adding oojamaflip to my lexicon and am just waiting for a chance to use it.

  2. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    It’s 1957. I’m seventeen years old. I’ve stopped at grandma’s house to drop something off, and I stay awhile to chat, and have a cup of coffee.

    Grandma – I saw whosis when I went into town yesterday.
    Me – Who did you see?
    Grandma – Oh, you know, whatchamacallit. I was at the supermarket tp buy some thingamabobs, and I bumped into whosis.

    It went on like that for quite a while. I never did find out who she was talking about.

  3. alexmccrae1546 says:

    I’m guessing that the slangy word “thingy” may have been the precursor to, or attenuated after-thought of “thingamajig” and “thingamabob”?

    “Thingy” fulfills the definitional criteria of a placeholder, referencing an ofttimes trifling inanimate object that one can’t immediately put the correct, or exact name to, at ‘that’ precise moment.

    Fans of the long-running “Seinfeld” sitcom would immediately recognize the placeholder “yadda…yadda… yadda”, basically a lazy way of making a longish story much shorter, by forcing the listener(s) to fill in the “yadda” blanks in the shortened narrative, but pretty much forcing them to guess at the missing, or implied story line conclusion.

    Seinfeld regular ensemble character, Elaine, would occasionally blurt out “blah…blah…blah”, often out of frustration— a placeholder signifying kind of the same-old-same-old, tired verbiage, generally of little import, or consequence.

  4. Stan says:

    Marc: That’s great. You could have a long and detailed conversation like that without learning any specific details at all. Good for the imagination.

    Alex: I think thingy in the particular thingumabob sense came later – in the 20th century – though thingy = (little) thing was used in Scotland for a couple of centuries before that. I’ve tried to resist adding Yadda/Blah (x3) to my narratives; there’s something a bit dismissive or, as you say, lazy about them.

    • david says:

      So, maybe i am a couple of years late, but could thingamabob be related to or derived from gingemabob? (see Le Slang, Lexique de L’anglais Familier Et Vulgaire and The New Dictionary of the Canting Crew.

      • Stan Carey says:

        I’m no etymologist but tend to defer to modern authoritative sources like the OED and American Heritage Dictionary (and Merriam-Webster and Green’s Dictionary of Slang, when applicable). The OED and AHD both give the same likely etymon: thingum (from thing) + bob.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:

    A few more fairly common placeholders, (these having a pronoun base), came to mind over the weekend; namely “whatshisface” and “whatsherface”, used when one is having trouble remembering a certain individual’s name.

    “Whats-its-face” has more of a put-down, demeaning intent, when referring to a particular person… objectifying, or dehumanizing that individual.

    “Whoosits” and “whatsits” have a kind of similar placeholder function as the aforementioned terms… the former reserved for people, and the latter, inanimate objects.

    “Whatnots and dodads”, sort of kindred terms, would suggest a motley assortment of sundry smallish items, or objects, generally of a curio, or knickknacky nature.

    Always liked the bouncy word “goobledygook”, presumably a placeholder descriptive relating to indecipherable babble… just a cut above ‘talking turkey’… gooble! gobble! gobble!… I suppose.

    In film making parlance, the scene descriptive term “walla walla” * is often used as a placeholder in the hardcopy script, signifying a kind of ambient background crowd noise, or jumbled conversation serving as a backdrop to the primary dialogue, or action in a particular scene.

    *it’s also a small town in Washington State.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    “Yoke” is one that doesn’t sit well on the Newfoundland people. I’ve tried it a few times to stunned looks. And don’t get me started on “stunned” which is another thingamajig altogether here – “buddy was right stunned.” Stunned = stupid, simple.
    XO
    WWW

  7. Stan says:

    Alex: Thanks for those enjoyable examples. I was unaware of dodad, apparently a rare variant of doodad. (Very rare: no mention in the OED.) Gobbledygook/gobbledegook is a subject I’ve addressed a few times on this blog, usually in the context of official language, and you might remember we discussed walla walla in my review of The Horologicon.

    WWW: Funny how some words just won’t take. And yoke‘s failure in Newfoundland is obviously not from your lack of effort. That’s very interesting about stunned; I see there’s a helpful entry in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English.

  8. Picky says:

    Then there’s dooflab, which I think refers specifically to an inanimate object, possibly small and probably in some way troublesome, but which is a word I’ve tried to avoid using since it was described on Men Behaving Badly (I mean the genuine original British version) as, if I remember aright, a “girly” expression.

    • Stan says:

      Picky: Dooflab is completely new to me, but I note its resemblance to doodad and I appreciate your usage note, courtesy of Men Behaving Badly. So the placeholder set keeps growing…

  9. Bruce Denney says:

    Doodah is missing from your list although Bambidoomac is the word I use. Not seen that in any dictionary, but been using for 40 years.

    • Stan says:

      Bruce: My list was intended only to be a sample, not a comprehensive list, hence doodah‘s omission; I included its near-relation doodad. I’ve never seen or heard bambidoomac, but it’s a marvellous variation.

  10. […] Yoke is a very handy yoke altogether. It’s a placeholder word, used informally to refer to an […]

  11. John Cowan says:

    I was looking in the OED under yoke and found its Irish sense there. The editors think it derives smoothly from an earlier Scottish and Irish sense ‘(horse) cart’, in which case P. W. Joyce’s informant was being precise rather than vague when he called the first motorcar he had ever seen a quare yoke: it was indeed an unusual sort of cart. In 1916, Stephen Dedalus’s likewise countrified friend Davin complains that he cannot get “any kind of a yoke” to give him a lift, and as recently as 1996 a Renault car is called a yoke.

    By 1923, though, the next OED citation has a sword being called “a dangerous-looking yoke”, showing the word’s liberation from carriages. And the most recent citation from 2005 is delightful altogether: “Sure he went to Belfast for that yoke the minute he saw one on television for fear we haven’t enough clutter.” As a dweller in a NYC apartment, what other people would call a couple of closets, I sympathize.

    • Stan Carey says:

      I wasn’t aware of the ‘horse cart’ → ‘vehicle’ development, or that the latter sense remains extant. It’s great to see the detail in the entry. I’ll have to pay attention next time I hear someone apply the word to something with wheels! And yes, that 2005 citation is marvellous.

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